GNH and Democracy in Bhutan
25 March 2010
Bhutan will set new standards if it ensures that delivery processes in critical areas succeed in generating collective happiness, writes Malvika Singh
It is heartening to watch, witness and listen to leaders obsessed and committed to developing mechanisms and processes by which they can administer their country and bring ‘collective happiness’ to their people within the framework of an operating democracy. This is a task that needs equal participation from the civil society and the government. Both institutions need to take on the responsibility of creating a model of governance that sets a fresh, humane agenda for development within carefully spelt-out parameters. At a time of strife and violence across the planet, ‘Gross National Happiness’ could be the development philosophy and index for the future.
A landlocked kingdom that was once a fine-tuned monarchy, Bhutan had been consciously led by an enlightened king and turned into a ‘democracy’ that is structured on a carefully drafted constitution to guide its entry into the realm of the world of nations. Bhutan — with its royal family and parliamentarians — is attempting, creatively, to deal with the socio-economic and political challenges in its neighbourhood as well as on the international stage. It is also working to ensure that its administrative delivery systems carry GNH to the citizens and protect them from the onslaught of the failed systems and processes that the ‘outside’ world has had to endure.
Bhutan is remote, pristine and different. Buddhism and a sense of tranquillity dominate the country. The population is small but scattered across a rough-and-tough terrain that is difficult to traverse. It is a treasure trove of bio-diversity, which is zealously protected and revered. Its ruling elite is well-educated, informed and confident that it will have to address the many challenges and dramatic changes with alacrity as well as with considered caution. The rulers are aware of the pitfalls and problems, and are open to debates, discussions and to sharing ideas and experiences to cross the hurdles with ease.
The first crop of people who stood for elections did not come from civil society but, instead, from the elite bureaucracy that had administered the kingdom for the monarch. This simple truth brings in its wake a strange realization that the person who was trained and experienced to operate the delivery process has become the democratically elected ‘leader’. Therefore, it is imperative to nurture a new, young leadership from the community that will make demands to meet the needs of the people. The foundations of change have to be put in place in preparation for the next election.
There is need for a dialogue between the young and the old, as well as among carefully selected groups of Indians and Bhutanese regarding a number of pertinent issues — democracy and its operational mechanisms; non-government activism that supplements the work done by the State; processes that protect the environment from the ravages of commercialism; the conservation of the ethos and cultural strains that make a country and its people resilient and confident; strategies regarding effective delivery of a rooted ‘education’ to the young who will have to deal with an alien world; measures to ensure the health and well-being of all citizens, approximately 650,000 of them; and on transparent, inclusive governance with the fundamentals of GNH as the anchor.
This exercise was conducted under the banner of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and the Seminar Education Foundation, and had its first meeting in March in Thimphu. Sharing and learning are two essential ingredients of bilateral exchanges that have, unfortunately, been diluted during most ‘talks’ and ‘seminars’. This has led to polarized pontifications with the larger entity being the know-all, and therefore unable to command respect or engage in a substantive dialogue that generates smaller, more intense, workshops and discussions that lead to action on the ground.
India has much to learn from Bhutan on a number of issues, such as protection and conservation, learning, listening and good manners in the public domain as well as the profound commitment of rulers towards inclusive, effective governance. The first flush of the exciting challenges of making a fledgling democracy work and work well with transparent operating systems is palpable here. The mistakes made by democracies such as ours need to be shared, defined and scrupulously avoided.
If the delivery processes in areas such as education, health, civil society and governance can be instilled with the tenets that can ensure collective acceptance and ‘happiness’, Bhutan will be at the forefront of setting new standards for a world that is talking seriously about sustainable development. To live with your environment, by your environment and for your environment is how democracy should work. That, of course, includes all aspects of living. The carefully calibrated balance will generate pride, which is the cornerstone of self-respect and confidence.
Bhutan could lose this in-built strength quite easily, and quickly, unless it continues to pursue new strategies of good governance without making the process sterile or insular. Members of civil society, women and schools must be drawn into dialogues that discuss threadbare the many issues that the new government is grappling with. The operating structures that belong to other nations, even those in the immediate neighbourhood, are alien and will need to be adjusted to adhere to local socio-cultural, economic and philosophical needs. The purpose of these kinds of dialogues is to share ideas and translate them into better delivery systems.
If India, too, could evolve a set of dos and don’ts to monitor the operation of thepanchayat and other grassroots systems of governance and were able to judge whether they will work or not, it would be a step forward. Indians can learn a lot about the protection of heritage, enhancing the skills of the people and the conservation of the natural environment from the Bhutan experiment. Small examples, remodelled to suit different areas and regions, could become links in the larger chain of transparent, inclusive administration. Public-private partnerships need to be initiated in which the stakeholders — men, women, and children in a panchayat — participate to change their lives in accordance with the parameters that have been carefully enunciated.
The outcome of these experiments will lead to many more detailed dialogues, and, hopefully, people-to- people engagements will continue unabated. Ideally, CBS and SEF will remain a catalyst for the mushrooming of separate, independent and situation-centric partnerships. South Asia is in turmoil. International players are conducting political and military games here to achieve their limited goals at the cost of the concerned nations. Political consensus is an imperative, but that is for the heads of the Saarc states to chalk out and execute in a determined spirit of trust and comradeship.